el9.jpg (20054 bytes)The Elemental Tarot - Review by Lee Bursten

If you would like to purchase this reprint of this book/deck set, click here.

I have always been captivated by Caroline Smith’s images for this deck, and was frustrated that the deck was out of print and only available from the authors as a computer program. I was delighted to discover there would be a new edition, and I pre-ordered it from barnesandnoble.com and eagerly awaited its arrival.

Well, here it is, and after struggling with it for a few weeks, I’ve decided that, as much as I love the artwork, this deck is not for me. For one thing, the production is a disappointment. The price for the deck/book set is $18.95, which is very reasonable. But the new publishers, St. Martin’s Press, have skimped. The cards themselves are somewhat thin and flimsy. The packaging is so minimal as to be nonexistent. The back cover of the book (paperback, as opposed to the hardcover original) is twice as wide as the front cover. The cards sit in two piles on top of the book, and the back cover folds over them, and the whole is shrinkwrapped. This sort of packaging is certainly environmentally preferable, but it doesn’t provide much protection for the cards.

When you look carefully at the cards themselves, you will see that any black lines which are diagonal or curved look somewhat choppy, leading me to think that the images have undergone some sort of scanning process rather than being photographed. (Smith’s more recent deck, the Mystic Tarot, shares the same characteristic.) At least the colors are nice and bright. The words and names on the cards have been re-typeset in a different, more stylish font than the original.

I was particularly irritated that the publishers had apparently so little interest in this project that nobody bothered to proofread the text of the book. It is riddled with typographical errors. My favorite is in the description for the Star, which reads: "Despite all odds I know that what seems to be an impossible situation will get better, and therefore I have the enemy [sic] to carry on." I find the same error in the demo version of the software program, which leads me to think that the authors simply handed the publishers the electronic text from the program, and the publishers just dumped it into the book without anyone bothering to read it. I would have expected better from a major publisher, even at $18.95. I would have gladly paid a few dollars more if that meant they could hire a copyeditor or proofreader.

The worst production problem occurs on the cards themselves. I do not have the original edition, but I understand the astrological symbols (each card contains two) were typeset. In the new edition, for some reason they are hand-drawn. And two cards contain the wrong symbols. According to the book, Fate (Wheel of Fortune) is supposed to be Uranus and Ascendant; on the card it is Saturn and Ascendant. And on Law (Justice), the symbols are supposed to be Saturn and Midheaven, but the card shows Saturn and Ascendant. My understanding is that the original edition does not contain these errors.

I find this presents some problems, even beyond the fact that the errors simply should not be there. For those readers who are astrologically inclined, it is a serious matter that for two cards the symbols are wrong. Even if you don’t use astrology to help interpret the cards, at some point (if you read for others) you will encounter a client who will be paying attention to the symbols. It seems to me a reader should not be burdened with having to explain to the client that the cards contain misprints.

What adds to the problem is that in fact astrological correlations form a large part of the authors’ conceptualization of the cards. Personally I was willing to be open-minded and to try to learn the system and see if it was workable. Since the Minors do not follow any tradition but rely on numerology and elemental symbolism as well as astrology to create their meanings, they don’t present a problem, since they more or less start from scratch. But in the Majors I found, since the cards’ meanings are built around the astrological correlations, that there were too many cards where the traditional meanings were twisted out of recognition.

The most egregious example is the Shaman (Hermit). Because the operative planet is Pluto, the meaning is given as willpower, enlightenment, the higher spiritual self. The keyword on the card is "Will." The picture is of an unbearded, powerful figure standing on a mountaintop with its arms raised. This is all very interesting, but it doesn’t have very much to do with the "wise old man" archetype. I would certainly concede that different decks can and do look at the archetypes from different perspectives, but in this case I feel as if the archetype has been abandoned. This Hermit seems to have taken on characteristics usually assigned to the Magician.

Also, because the operative planet for both the Pope (Hierophant) and Law (Justice) is Saturn, I found it exceedingly difficult to understand the difference between the two. The given meaning for the Pope speaks of conventional behavior, while that for Law speaks of what authority dictates and conditioning through upbringing and society. It all sounds the same to me.

Some cards seem to have been given their planet simply because all the others had been used up. For example, the Star is assigned Mercury, for no particularly cogent reason that I can see.

All of this raises an interesting question about to what extent deck authors and artists should impose their own concepts onto readers. Of course, any deck will have its own perspective. It’s easier to deal with when the cards don’t contain keywords, which is why I’ve always preferred not to have them. Without keywords a reader is free to add to or change the meanings of the cards, the only restriction being what’s contained in the card’s image. This deck has multitudes of keywords. Many of the Major titles (which are placed at the top of the cards) have been changed, so that they in effect become keywords. And besides that, the Majors have another set of keywords on the bottom of the cards; even the keywords have keywords! As if this were not enough, at the back of the book is a third set of keywords which sometimes duplicates the keywords on the cards and sometimes not.

Sometimes these keywords can hinder rather than help in elucidating the cards’ meanings. For example, Justice has been renamed Law, and the keyword is System, while Temperance has been renamed Peace, and its keyword is Justice!

I also fail to understand the logic behind changing the Hierophant’s title to the pre-20th century title of Pope, while changing the Hermit to Shaman. If the authors wanted to change an obscure name like Hierophant to the simpler Pope, why then change the Hermit, which is perfectly clear, to Shaman, which for most people will be just as obscure as Hierophant?

Interestingly, in Stuart Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot, Volume 3, this deck is pictured with significant differences in the titles, keywords and symbols. The caption to the picture states, "The illustration was photographed from the original art. Some of the text on the cards was changed for the published deck." (In other words, the cards were photographed before the original printing in 1988). In the illustration, the Strength card was apparently originally entitled Altruist. The keyword for Trickster (Fool), which is now Confidence, was originally Adaptability. The keyword for Virgin, now Receptivity, was originally Fluctuation. The Shaman’s keyword, now Will, was originally Silence. The Moon’s keyword, now Illusion, was originally Exploitation. And most surprising of all, the astrological correlations have changed! Shaman, now Pluto, was Uranus. Strength, now Jupiter, was Pluto. The Tower, now Uranus, was Pluto.

This makes me have less than total confidence that this is a well-thought-out system, since it apparently was changing significantly right up to the date of publication of the original edition.

What all this adds up to is if readers are drawn to Smith’s art (as many will be) and want to work with this deck, they will have to swallow the authors’ concepts, with which they may agree or disagree. Besides cards like the Hermit which revisualize the archetypes beyond recognition, there’s no escaping those keywords. Perhaps the answer to this would be, if one does not find the concepts to one’s liking, to take a paper-cutter and cut off the borders so that only the picture remains.

However, this would be very unsatisfactory for the Minors, which, rather than using keywords, rely on a much more attractive system. Above the image is a title based on a facet of the element appropriate to that suit (for example Ozone, Storm, and Thunder for the suit of Air, or Oasis, Ocean and Well for the suit of Water). Below the images appear the names of gods or goddesses from different cultures. These names and titles are very well done, and I would hate to lose them. But on the software program the cards appear without any borders or titles, and they look quite attractive that way. Fans of Smith’s art may want to consider cutting the cards as an alternative.

When it comes to Smith’s art, I’m speechless. Her designs are so bold, so colorful, so evocative, I think everyone should buy a copy of this deck simply for the art. Major cards that I particularly like are Virgin (High Priestess), with its mysterious mood; Choice (Lovers), with its red tempter peeking from behind a tree; Death, simply for the excellence of the design; and Aeon (World), which I think is my favorite World card, just because of its simplicity.

Minor cards I enjoy are the fiery Volcano (8 of Fire); Clay (4 of Earth), with its little figure trapped by all the security and success; Quake (5 of Earth), who mopes while the earth turns beneath her feet; Forest (9 of Earth), who floats while holding a violin; and Oasis (6 of Water), showing a dreamy landscape.

The Courts are a pleasant surprise in that the meanings given are fairly traditional. The Son of Fire and the Father of Air are particularly striking.

I certainly recommend this deck for anyone who likes the look of the art. And if you want to read with it, by all means give it a shot. But be prepared to jettison a lot of what you know about the cards if you want to follow the authors’ system.

If you would like to purchase the reprint of this book/deck set, click here.

The Elemental Tarot by Caroline Smith and John Astrop
St. Martin’s Griffin
St. Martin’s Press
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10010
ISBN 0-312-24139-9

Review Copyright 1999 Lee Bursten

Images Copyright 1988 Caroline Smith

Page Copyright 1999 Diane Wilkes